Given the frighteningly real prospect that forty five might soon become forty six, and the fast approaching fourth anniversary of my mother’s passing, the topic of my blog this month became quite clear.
My mother was a real pistol. She died on November 9, 2016. The cause of death on paper was complications from Alzheimers disease, but in reality, the shock of Donald Trump winning the election was just too much for her to bear. I will never forget it, watching the election results come in, up all night glued to the television. I had an impending sense of doom….was it because my mother’s health had been steadily declining….or was it at the prospect of having a reality star as our president. As it turns out, it was both. A mere 10 hours after Donald Trump made his acceptance speech, my mother’s heart stopped. Really, if you look at it, forty five has that affect on people, just look at the cracker-jack job he has done during the pandemic……oh wait……I was just handed a legal note……let’s read it……”Donald J. Trump’s leadership during the China Virus pandemic has saved millions and millions of lives.” Sure am glad we cleared that up. So let’s put this together….my mother survived a childhood in Nazi occupied Italy, an arduous 10 day transcontinental voyage to America, raising myself and my brother (a feat in and of itself), 5 major surgeries……and just 10 hours after Trump was elected……she dropped dead. You do the math.
Now, having established how she died, let’s talk about how she lived. Mommy was born on May 1, 1930 in Bari Italy, a small fishing town. She had three siblings, two brothers and a sister. Her older brother Frankie died from tuberculosis. Then, several years later, her father died from appendicitis. The unavailability of medical care had taken so many souls from families of her generation, and caused so much trauma. The coughing that is so common with tuberculosis, made such an indelible mark on mommy. So many years later, after she had myself and my brother, the simple cold, and the coughing that accompanied it, would cause visible terror on her face. As a youngster, I never understood how she felt, what affect her childhood trauma had on her. As I became older, and certainly after I had my own children, I had a better appreciation of how difficult these losses must have been for her.
Like many others, my mother’s family decided that coming to the United States might allow them to have a better life. So in the late winter of 1950, mommy’s Uncle Lenny called them over and helped them settle in the Bronx. I recall one story in particular that my mother would always tell….about her Uncle Lenny, greeting them after their journey through Ellis Island. Like many others from that time, he had not seen his family in many years, and was not entirely sure what they would look like, but then he recognized her …… he saw in my mother a younger version of the sister he had not seen for so long. This is where the story starts.
From the beginning, my mother showed strength of character that one might not expect of a young lady like herself. After setteling in a small apartment in the North Bronx, my mother made the bold decision to attend night school to learn to speak English. Assimilation was encouraged then, and was embraced by my mom. She learned enough english to get a job. After all, getting a job was the starting point for the American dream. Popular professions for recent female immigrants were typically few and far between, seamstresses, asssembly work, home and child care……nope……not my mother…….sample model for a patternmaker in Manhattan. This picture will tell you why, size 4, 21 years old, limited english. I suppose she was the 1950’s man’s idea of a dream girl. Come to think of it, I know a few men who may still feel the same way today. She quickly realized that her employer’s interest was less in how his clothing looked on her, and more about how she would look like sans the dresses she was wearing. Her modeling career was over before it began. The experience, however, shaped her.
You see, the ladies of the ’50s had a certain elegance that the following generations lacked somehow. You would never catch them going to the supermarket with their pajama bottoms tucked into their uggs (guilty as charged). They were always put together, despite the fact that they were all broke. Perfectly coiffed hair, stockings, snug-fitting skirts, kitten heels….and let’s not forget the obligatory cigarette seductively held in the left hand…with a little drink held in the right. In my mother’s case a Tom Collins, but never more than two. Mommy would often tell me about how she and her sister, Vicky, would get dressed up, meet their friends, and go to Corso Nightclub on 86th street. There she, and her girlfriends, all recent arrivals, would go to socialize. She and her sister were popular, and would often have many suitors waiting their turn for a dance. Right up until the end of her life, she would reminisce about those happy times. I would often wish I had been a fly on the wall.
My mother’s non traditional way of thinking also translated to her choice of a husband, my father. If you believe the stories she told, and I did, she had many handsome suitors, and was proposed to several times. The one who won her heart……get ready….. this is a real page turner…..was a good man, twice widowed, with a young son. Now that is quite a story, alas, it is not mine to tell. Maybe someday. As you can imagine, my mother’s unconventional choice in a husband was not exactly to the liking of her mother. I guess the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree.
I always remembered my mother being well put together. Now, this is not to say that my mother was superficial or lacking parenting skills, because she was not. She was the one you wanted in your corner, no matter what. Teresa was very much the stereotypical doting Italian mother, she just did so while wearing Cashmere Bouquet on her lips. I can remember one incident in particular, I was in the third grade at St. Lucy’s school. Seems Sister Camille did not like the way I wrote the number four on the blackboard, so she beat me on the backside with a three foot ruler. Nothing like a good catholic education, am I right? Anyway, when my mother met me after school, I told her what happened. I can remember her grabbing me by the hand, and barreling into the classroom to have a little chit chat with Sister Camille. WIth me cowering behind her back, my mother said “Sister, if you have a problem with Johanna, you let me know, and I will hit her myself.” “But I am telling you, if you ever touch my daughter again….I will pull that habit off your head.” Holy shit, I thought to myself, we are all going to hell. Parenting goals, Italian style.
So, like I was saying, I grew up being told that your appearance is important. Being neatly dressed, well groomed, because as she used to say, when you look your best, you feel your best. And be it right or wrong, my mother was convinced that a little lipstick went a long way. I can remember one occasion, when I was 21. My father had just passed, and we had business to attend to at The Italian Consulate in New York City. We were assembeling our documents, getting ready to leave, and my mother said “Johanna, we need to get alot done today, put your lipstick on.” “Come on Ma, I don’t want to wear lipstick” I said, partly because I was not a big makeup person, and partly because whatever my mother wanted, I did the opposite. ” I said put your lipstick on”, she was not taking no for an answer. And so I did. When we got to the Consulate we began conducting our business, and my mother was approached by a handsome, older gentleman, with grey hair. He quickly realized that I was not fluent in Italian, so he starting speaking with my mother, pointing at me…..and then it happened…..the hand went up. Ok, so, let me explain, in an Italian family, when the hand goes up, you are in trouble. It was a combination between a Mussolini salute and a high five, but the ultimate goal was to get the speaker’s attention and stop the action. And it sure did. Their conversation ended quite abruptly. When we finished our business, and were outside, I asked my mother what happened. With her usual triumphant smirk, she said “he asked me if I would give my permission to let you go to Rome to do some modeling…..but you needed to lose 25 lbs first……I told him to get lost. You see….. I told you to put your lipstick on.” I think back on that day, and laugh…….25lbs, how dare he.
I can remember being ‘inspected’ by my mother before going out, always in the most loving way, of course. Some of my favorites….”that skirt is too short…when you bend down you are going to give everyone a free show”, “are you wearing a bra?”, “you are gonna fall and break your neck with those shoes”. But… my all time favorite…”did you check the mirror before you came downstairs?” Some almost forty years later, when I see someone not dressed well… I have caught myself thinking if she checked the mirror before she left the house, I guess I am becoming my mother, not such a bad thing.
And as the years passed, and I had my girls, and certainly after their diagnosis of Autism, my appearance was not foremost in my mind. There was just no time for self care. And since I am a stress eater, my weight became quite out of control. My mother was always there to support me and the girls, she and my brother held me up at the hardest time in my life. Although she was not terribly vocal about it, I could tell that my deteriorating appearance was disappointing to her, particularly because my health was being affected. She began to broach the subject with me, gently at first, and when I was not receptive, the kid gloves came off. It was then that the interventions began.
Sitting at the kitchen table, it went like this…..”Johanna…. put down the Entenmann’s…..I know how upset you are, wake up… you need to start taking care of yourself “……..and so I listened, begrudgingly. It was as if we were somehow reenacting a scene from one of my favorite movies Moonstruck. My mother channeling Olympia Dukakis (she would have loved the comparison) and me…….Danny Aiello (you thought I was going to say Cher, right….nope…way out of my league). Many interventions followed….to little avail….you can lead a horse to water, I was just not ready to drink.
Generally, my mother was this funny, sarcastic, broad. She had her share of tough times, though, like all of us. My father passed at 56 after a long battle with cancer, so my mom was widowed at 55. It was from her I learned that laughing is always better than crying. She sure was right. After my father’s passing, my mom never dated again. We would often joke that she needed to find a nice old man…with alot of money….and a bad heart. “No thank you, once was enough” was always her response. As luck would have it, after a move to a new home, mommy discovered that an old boyfriend, Charlie, lived around the corner. The spectacle I was about to observe confirmed to me that I was indeed my mother’s daughter. Mommy would get dressed up, wearing her signature lipstick, and walk past Charlie’s house. The excuse was always that she was going to the market, yet she always returned grocery-less. “You know Johanna, he did not age well…..he used to be very handsome.” And then it happened….”he’s married, I saw his wife…..I guess he had to settle for anything after I dumped him.” From that point on, she took the long way to the grocery store, completely avoiding his house. However, Charlie’s morning strolls took a different path, right past our house. He would casually look through our front window as he walked by, as casually as a 75 year old man, with a cane can. “You see….he’s still after me…..he lost his chance.” I must admit, If I was Charlie, I would be after her too.
And although time aged her exterior, she was still the same pepper pot on the inside. That was often surprising to people. In her later years she used a walker to navigete safely. I can remember after a major surgery, and spending 6 days under sedation, she awoke dazed and confused. Myself, the doctor and the nurse were present when she awoke, and, in an attempt to assess her mental function, we were asking her questions. Her responses came slowly, and not completely correctly, which was alarming to us all. I then asked her “mommy, am I married” to which she responded…. “yes”……”do you like him” “NOPE” no hesitation that time. Doctor and Nurse were shocked by her response, but I reassured them, ” she’s fine….she really doesn’t like him.” I would often joke that she had better judgment than I…..even after having been sedated for 6 days.
So, with the onset of Alzheimers, the already small, partially operating filter in her brain, became less and less functional. That was a common occurrence for many individuals with declining mental capacity. Given her bold statements pre dementia, we were wondering how long it would take for either my brother or I to get slapped in response to one of her remarks. She basically said whatever she wanted. In her mind, however, there was no malicious intent, she was just making, what she perceived to be a factual observation. “Does that old lady really need that tattoo?” (it’s funny, even at 86 my mother referred to others as old ladies, but never herself) , “someone forgot to brush their hair today”, and of course her claim to fame ” does she not have a mirror in her house?”
Her bold remarks were not just limited to commenting on others. It had always been quite clear that a handsome face was not wasted on her. As you can imagine, as her health began to decline, we were visiting her doctor more often. She looked forward to seeing him for a variety of reasons. Now, if you have elderly parents, you will be able to relate to this, sometimes you just need to see the doctor to be reassured…. that you were still alive. My mother needed that encouragement more and more as time went on. But another reason was because she had a little crush on him. He was kind, friendly, and SPOKE ITALIAN…….for the win. After a particular visit with Dr. B, my mother turned to me and said “you know…. he is really my type…….If I was thirty years younger, he could put his shoes under my bed any day”. In my head I thought, you know……I AM thirty years younger, and last time I checked, the bottom of my bed was shoe-less…. you know…. that whole apple tree thing. I miss my mother more than I can say.
The moral of the story here….vote….like your mother’s life depends on it….I know I will be.
Johanna Cascione is a mom of adult twin daughters with severe autism, and a first time author of an autobiography – “Worn Like A Badge, Published under the moniker J. L. Verita.
After a career in the financial services industry, and a 10-year journey to have children, Johanna received the news that her twin daughters had severe autism. She experienced profound depression and anxiety. The diagnosis of her girls, especially in light of her struggle to have them, was almost too much for her to bear.
Ultimately she decided that the only way she could advocate for her daughters, was to become a stronger person, stronger than the fear that gripped her , stronger than the depression that paralyzed her, stronger than the diagnosis.
Her decision to replace the fear with hope, weakness with strength and the anger with kindness, was not an easy one, but she found it to be her only option. Her resolve to focus on hope, kindness and humor, especially when they were in short supply, served her well.
Today Johanna continues to advocate for her girls, as well as provide support for other families of individuals with autism. She has many stories to tell, from a life that was not at all what she expected. She is finding that her voice is one of honesty, hope, and yes…humor. Laughter heals the soul, and don’t we all need some of that.